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What Happens to Birds When Wildlife Refuges Dry Up?

A million birds spend time annually in the Klamath Basin’s six wildlife refuges. But that’s only a fraction of the number that thrived here when they had year-round water.

July 25, 2017

This is the second story in a three-part series on the wildlife refuges of the Klamath Basin and water in the arid West. Read part one here.

A line of binoculars point upwards at a ridge on the edge of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. There’s an owl’s nest in a small cave about 150 feet up, and Charlotte Kisling has her scope trained.

“That’s a male barn owl in the scope,” she says to the group standing on the edge of the two-lane road.

“How do you know?”

“Females are tawny,” Kisling replies.

She knows a lot about birds and isn’t shy about sharing.

“Oh, I thought it was winking.”

It takes a pregnant moment for this comedic bit to land, but Kevin Spencer gets some appreciative chuckles from his fellow birders.

Spencer is leading this Klamath Audubon Society birding field trip through two of the Klamath National Wildlife Refuges straddling the Oregon-California border. He doesn’t get a chance at an encore joke because another raptor comes on stage.

“There’s a prairie falcon flying!” Kisling yells in excitement.

The group tracks the brown mottled bird and its mate swoop and dip along the ridge. The high-pitched cries bounce off a rock wall and out over the miles of open valley floor behind the group.

“Look at this show. Just enjoy it,” she says, obviously doing so herself.

People travel here from all over the world to visit the Klamath Refuges. It’s one of the best spots for birding in the United States. There are birding trails, birding festivals — an entire birding economy in the Klamath Basin.

Today it’s a Southern Oregon crowd on the Audubon field trip, which is focusing not on raptors, but on shorebirds.

Kait White recently moved to Grants Pass from Georgia, and says she immediately heard recommendations to visit the refuges.

Kait White of Grants Pass saw 43 different species of birds in one day at the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Complex.  Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

“My species list — I write everything down — is so long compared to other places you go to see one specific species or one or two things. But not like this,” she says. “We must have seen like 45 species today, so pretty awesome.”

And across the six preserves in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, there’s a place for every bird.  

Sage grouse strut at Clear Lake.  

Bald eagles roost at Bear Valley.  

White pelicans patrol Klamath Marsh.

Terns summer at Tule Lake.  

Red-winged blackbirds hide at Upper Klamath.  

And their yellow-headed counterparts sing across the border in Lower.

But all this abundance could be deceptive.

White Pelicans patrol Tule Lake. Photo: Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

Closing The Windows

Stories go around the Klamath Basin about the birds and how many there used to be.

“I talked to people that grew up here in the ’20s and ’30s,” says Ron Cole, former manager of the refuge complex.

Cole started at the refuges as a technician in the 1980s, left for a while, and then came back as manager in the early 2000s.

“The classrooms in Tulelake during the fall migration, the white-fronted geese were so numerous that the teachers would have to close the windows so she could talk to the class,” he says. “Because it was so loud.”

Now Cole says if you see a flock of white-fronted geese flying over the town of Tulelake in the fall, it’s a big deal.

 That decline in birds is the story of the Klamath Refuges.  

“Historically, it was thought that these refuges here had the highest concentrations of waterfowl found anywhere in the world,” says Bob Hunter, with the environmental group WaterWatch.

The Klamath refuges are located in the heart of the Pacific Flyway — one of the major migratory bird routes in the world, stretching from the southern tip of South America to Alaska.  And a majority of the waterfowl on the flyway come through the Klamath Basin.

“This is the bottleneck right here. This is one of the few places where they can come where there are still wetlands available — a mix of wetland habitats that can provide a place for rest and re-nourishment on their migration both north and south in the spring and the fall,” Hunter said.

But populations here have plummeted over the past century, in part because of what humans have done to the landscape in the Klamath Basin. The estimated number of birds using the refuges have dropped from more than 7 million birds a year in the 1950s to closer to 1 million currently.    

Because the birds migrate, problems in the basin likely aren’t the only reason. But the ecosystems here have been highly altered. Marsh connectivity has been lost and as much as 80 percent of the original wetlands in the basin have been drained; much of that area now used for agriculture.  

The rate of habitat loss from development has slowed considerably. Recently though, the major issue in the basin has been lack of water. The water supply has been stretched thin —  so thin that in an average water year, often there’s someone who won’t get the water they want. Even in good water years the refuges have no certainty they’ll get water.

Related: Birds Take Backseat To Fish, Farms In The Klamath Basin

Without this certainty, the ability of wildlife managers to plan for the season has been diminished, invasive plants are running rampant and disease has killed thousands of birds.

Conditions are changing on the refuges.

“We're turning into more of a spring and fall migration stopover,” says current refuge manager Greg Austin.

Austin says the refuges haven’t been able to provide nesting habitat because they haven’t been able to keep water on the land.

“Historically, you'd have water here in the summer — permanent wetland units — that you would get a lot of breeding birds. And we don't have that anymore,” he says.

Protecting Postage Stamps

John Alexander of the Klamath Bird Observatory has seen this loss in his work.

Paddling on the Upper Klamath Refuge canoe trail, he’s yelled at by birds perched on the reedy marsh and green linoleum swaths of lilypad called wocus.

“We'll just tuck up into this little channel and sit tight a little bit. And hope that some of our black terns show up,” Alexander says as the canoe pushes through the lilypads.

Canoe trails run through several of the national wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin. Photo: Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

The first of this year’s terns should be arriving any day. They’ll spend a couple weeks on the marsh pairing off and then they’ll build nests in the great sea of tules Upper Klamath is known for.

“(Upper Klamath is) a postage stamp of what wetland habitats probably were in the West originally,” Alexander says.

For a decade, the observatory tracked migratory black terns that nest in and around Upper Klamath. What they found was alarming.

While the terns’ numbers have remained relatively stable elsewhere, they declined here by 8 percent each year.

Alexander says rising and falling bird populations could be used to help determine the health of these wetlands.  

“The consequences for society might not be as apparent as they could be,” he says, dipping his paddle into the calm, dark water. “All of this represents clean water downstream. And all of this represents healthier watersheds that hold more water in the long run in a climate change scenario.” 

For Alexander, the immediate question is not whether there’s enough protected wetland habitat in the Klamath Basin, but…

“Are we taking care of the postage stamp?”

John Alexander with the Klamath Bird Observatory looked at black tern populations in the Klamath Basin.  Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

And The Answer Is …

It would be pretty difficult to find a person who knows the situation at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex and would still answer that question “yes.”  

Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, definitely would not. Instead, he’d take things a step further and place at least some of the blame on the refuges themselves — specifically the people that manage them.

Audubon is one of several groups suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over a new Comprehensive Conservation Plan for managing the refuges. The plan was released early this year. The suit argues the refuges aren’t doing what they should be doing to protect the birds.  

“I would have hoped they would have seen this as a proactive opportunity to take a hard look at the (refuges) and figure out if what they're doing makes sense. How it can be adjusted. And instead they double down on doing things exactly the way they previously did it,” Sallinger says.

Sallinger says the refuges’ primary mission is to manage for waterfowl — all waterfowl. But the new conservation plan only takes into account a select few species.

Yellow headed blackbirds make their homes in the marshes of Upper Klamath. Photo: Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

Just Add Memories

Retired refuge manager Cole is no fan of environmental groups’ legal challenges against the way the Klamath refuges are being operated. But he agrees with them on one thing.“This is something, that honestly, you just add water. It's that simple. You just add water,” he says.

“This is something, that honestly, you just add water. It's that simple. You just add water,” he says.

Cole has another old story about the refuges. It goes like this:

It’s 12 o’clock in the afternoon.  

The birds get up into the air.

And you can’t see the sun because there are so many layers of birds in the sky.

It’s a powerful memory. But it’s not a memory of the young. Or the middle-aged. It’s a memory of only the oldest of the oldest remaining in the basin.  

And without that memory ...

“I worry that when people are looking out there now, [they think] this is good,” Cole says.

Because when the birds are migrating through the national wildlife refuges it is impressive.

“But if they knew there was an opportunity to see many more birds, would it matter to them?  Don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe seeing just a few is enough.”

This is the second story in a three-part series on the wildlife refuges of the Klamath Basin and water in the arid West. Read part one here. Coming Wednesday: The environmental benefits of farming within wildlife refuges.


Birders on a Klamath Audubon Society field trip look for shorebirds on Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.

Jes Burns/OPB

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growing human population is a very big threat to the environment. it is not letting space to any other living organism including white-fronted geese. Reduction in the area of wetlands has resulted in the decline of the migratory bird population. I used to check my backyard using my trail camera where we were able to see many birds in the past. Now there are next to none.It is very much necessary to protect the environment. But I think along with human population corporate greed is also a big factor resulting in drying up of wetlands. Most rivers are turned in to dumping pits. There is a need for rapid actions to be taken to maintain the balance and have a healthy ecosystem.